The (Long) Road to Racial Understanding

Forget about racial/religious harmony. To reach that pinnacle of give-and-take, basic understanding must take place. This, one assume, is basically a given in Singapore; most people from other groups know that the void deck is being used by Malays to hold marriages, Chinese for funerals, and Indians to hold birthdays and other gatherings.

But we are in trouble if that is all we know, especially if we are part of the organizing personnels involved in multi-racial multi-religion events.

For instance, I’ve been to events which were supposed to provide lunch and dinner for the participants, of which include Muslims. The organizers know a bit about Muslim diet; we aren’t allowed to consume pork. So they prepared chicken wraps and salads. In such cases, the chicken is avoided, and the salads usually come to the rescue.

No Pork No Lard ≠ Halal

True, Muslims can’t eat pork, and it’s no rocket science that chicken isn’t pork. Unfortunately, another aspect of the Muslim diet which most people do not know is that all meats must be slaughtered in a specific manner, thus the term halal meat. Alcohol should also not be served, and that includes tiramisu.

The importance of details in planning such events are so vital that most attendees just assume that their needs are catered to. Here in Singapore, organizers are usually aware of the particularities of those involved, and just choose to conveniently cater from halal-certified providers, or go vegan.

By the look of things in Singapore, I would say most passed the food test, except for the tiramisu which I really suspect isn’t alcohol-free. But, they’ve still got a long way to go.

Firstly, the “no pork no lard” phrase has just gotta go. It may work well for someone who has allergy or adverse reaction to pork, but it is sometimes confusing for those who doesn’t understand that “no pork no lard” ≠ halal. Though one may not entirely fault the shopowners (usually bakeries which doesn’t use no pork/lard but uses non-halal sausages etc) as they are merely stating facts, the Muslim consumer should also be more aware of his decisions.

no pork no lard

“No pork no lard” ≠ halal! Religion is not to be dictated by the rumbling stomach. (Image credit)

Such diluted understanding is prevalent here in Singapore, but apparently in other countries. Take this biscuit produced in Korea, sold here in Singapore.

19092009037

The highlighted part actually translates into: Free from pork products and its derivatives. While this may put some hearts at rest, other may question does the E-4xx emulsifiers contain gelatin from non-halal beef? Here’s what the local religious body’s got to say on the matter.

Food claims such as ‘No Pork, No Lard’ do not necessarily imply that the food is truly Halal. Halal food must not contain and/or come into direct contact with non-Halal items. Examples of these include alcohol, pork and meat deriving from sheep which are not slaughtered in accordance with the Islamic Law.

Calendar and Events

Besides food, some religion also possesses their own calendar system. Nothing too hard to ignore, as major religious events are widely reported here, such as the Deepavali, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Thaipusam. Event organizers should therefore take note of the dates, else the targeted crowd may not come.

This is a banner of what is supposed to be “Racial Harmony Sports Day”. At first glance, all seems to be okay; everyone from all races are invited to participate – a wonderful thought.

11092009024

The true test of endurance: Sports + fasting.

One little issue though, the date 13/09/2009 is the final week of the fasting month of Ramadan, prior to the Muslim Hari Raya celebration.

One may say that I’m being too picky by pointing these out, but in reality, a fasting person would do as much to conserve his energy as even a drop of water is not allowed. Furthermore, for the event organizers to call it “Racial Harmony” is unfortunately oxymoronic if it is not suited to the racial groups’ observances.

And here’s a reader’s letter from today’s paper on Deepavali. I share his thoughts on the issue.

Diwali is essentially known as the festival of lights, as it marks the return of King Rama to reclaim his throne after a 14-year exile in the forest, and his victory over Ravana, a legendary evil king who abducted his wife Sita, and lights were put up in celebration.

It is also celebrated by Sikhs, who commemorate the return of Guru Hargobind, who had been imprisoned with 52 other princes at Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir.

It is a major symbolic festival, but the proper greeting should be simply ‘Happy Diwali’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’, and more good times ahead, not ‘Happy New Year’.

While I do appreciate the nice gesture from my non-Muslim friends when they send me greetings on Hari Raya, it slightly bugs me that most of them choose to greet by saying “Happy New Year”. Hari Raya is not a new year. It falls on the 10th month of the lunar calendar. That’s like wishing someone a happy new year in October.

<Given-Name> <Family-Name> <Father’s Name>

Each culture also has their own name structure convention. Chinese and Western names usually have a <given-name><family-name> convention (or vice-versa). Malay and Indian names (at least in Singapore) meanwhile doesn’t include family names, their names consist of <given-name> <father’s name>.

I had naively expected this to be common cultural knowledge, knowing that the word bin and binte in the Malay/Arabic naming convention correlates with the Indian s/o and d/o. Well, I thought wrong.

Here’s a passage from the local daily, which mentions a politician’s name. The politician, a Malay,  is Hawazi Daipi. According to the Malay naming convention, he should be called by his first name, and not his last name; his last name is actually his father’s name and not his family name.

Apparently the reporter doesn’t get it, and reported here:

…Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi in Parliament on Monday afternoon.

Mr Daipi was responding to questions by MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Baey Yam Keng who asked what help do bosses who can’t afford to pay the full medical bills of their maids get. He also asked if the Government would consider capping the maximum liability of bosses.

Mr Daipi said to reduce the burden of these large medical bills…

Sloppy, as a quick google would have produced his CV and given clues to his ‘surname’.

But this example is not a rarity. I have been many times, in situations when formality ensues, called by my ‘surname’; I don’t have one, so they were actually calling me by my father’s name. So much so that I got used to it.

In fact, my previous workplace requires the work email address to be a combination fo the first letter of my first name, and my last name in full. Which in this case will be x_FATHERSNAME@xxxxx.com. It truly was irritating. My request to have it changed wasn’t accepted. I do not mind if I actually do have a surname, but I simply don’t.

And it sounds really idiotic to have my email address based on my father’s name instead of my own. Just what can I do then?

Understanding, then Harmony

Until we have these issues being understood by everyone of different racial and religious background, the word “racial/religious harmony” will amost always be viewed like some propaganda horn blown by from the top. True, to an extent is does coerce a nervous and artificial form of tolerance, with the main objective of avoiding trouble and confrontations, while gulping down the occasional uneasiness.

But when one look closely, these trivial issues are not really so trivial, they form the very basis of harmony. How can a society truly achieve this “harmony” if it doesn’t even know what to call its neighbour? Or what to serve when hosting them? Or when to hold meet-ups or gatherings?

Culture is deeply rooted for generations. Religion is a way of life. They influence names and name structure, possesses their own calendar system, practices, and rituals.

In the end, one must remember that religion and culture is not just all about food.

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